Hardy Hibiscus Limited Edition Pack

by Ken Greene

This year we created a very limited edition Art Pack for the Philadelphia International Flower Show. This special pack, designed by Sarah Snow of Treeo Design, is only available through the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society website and at the Flower Show March 3-11. For each pack you purchase, PHS and the Seed Library have teamed up to donate a pack of vegetable seeds to City Harvest, a program that helps feed families in need.

When we decided to partner with PHS to create a custom seed pack for this year's Philadelphia International Flower Show the first challenge was to figure out a seed variety to go with this year's flower show theme, Hawaii, Islands of Aloha. We wanted to make sure the seeds would be something everyone could grow, even in the decidedly un-tropical Northeast.

I started researching Hawaiian flowers and found that finding annuals that could be started from seed and grown in the Northeast were few and far between. I then switched gears and started trying to find flowers and vegetables with tropical names like Pineapple Tomato, and Seashells Cosmos. But nothing seemed perfect until I turned to my favorite source for seeds, history.

I learned that in 1792 George Washington ordered hibiscus from Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram Jr. The senior Bartram was Pennsylvania's most illustrious botanist. I couldn’t imagine he had been to Hawaii and found a way to grow tropical hibiscus (Hawaii’s official state flower) here in the Northeast. It turned out that on one of his many expeditions through the swamps of the South and mid-Atlantic he had gathered wild versions of the hardy hibiscus, also known as swamp mallow which he then introduced to the rest of the world. By 1807 John Bartram and Son’s Philadelphia seed catalog listed hardy hibiscus seeds. Cultivars of the plant became a sought after sensation in Europe and breeding work has continued until present times.

Hardy hibiscus seed pods.

From: Our Hardy Hibiscus Species as Ornamentals by Harold F. Winters
“Hardy Rose Mallows were introduced into cultivation very early both in this country and in Europe. In 1807 John Bartram and Son (2), Philadelphia, listed Hibiscus moscheutos and H. palustris in their catalog. One of the first hybridizers was Ernest Hemming, employed at the time by the Thomas Meehan Nursery (29) at Philadelphia. In 1903 he obtained one seedling with red flowers that withstood Philadelphia's winters. After several generations the resulting progeny exhibited considerable variation in flower and foliage characters. Seedlings of these selections were first sold in 1907 as Meehan Mallow Marvels by the Thomas Meehan Nursery (29). The Meehan Mallow Marvels are still listed for sale by nurseries in the United States and abroad. Late in life Ernest Hemming returned to Hibiscus hybridizing with his son E. Sam Hemming (11, 12) of Easten Shore Nursery Inc. at Easton, Maryland. Together they developed and patented in 1949 the clone 'Annie J. Hemming.' In 1915 the Wyomissing Nursery (44), Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, listed Hibiscus (Mallow) New Giant Flowering. “

Once I found this strong historical connection to Philadelphia for a plant that is closely related to the official flower of Hawaii, I knew this was the pack I wanted to create for PHS. But finding seeds proved to be difficult. The modern hybrid seed for Hardy hibiscus varieties such as Luna or Lord and Lady Baltimore are very expensive and have plant variety protection patents. You can by the plants, but are not allowed to propagate the seeds. After much searching, I found an independent source of open-pollinated hardy hibiscus seeds. An avid seed saver named Gaby agreed to send us two pounds of hibiscus seed pods which we processed and cleaned by hand. Not only is the artwork for the pack limited edition, but we used almost all of the seeds, so there are no more packs after these are gone!

Bartram Luau rendition by Sarah Snow

Now you can follow in the footsteps of John Bartram by planting these seeds in your garden. You may even try your hand at saving seeds from the plants you grow.

Here’s how to start your seeds and care for your showy perennial hardy hibiscus.

Soak hardy hibiscus seeds in to a bowl of warm water overnight.
Fill 4-inch pots with pre-moistened potting mix.
Plant the seeds:
Plant one seed per pot no more than .5 inches deep.
Keep pots damp, but not over saturated, at all times by misting the surface daily and watering from underneath. You can use an irrigation tray or mat.
Place pots under a florescent light. Keep 3-4 inches between light and seedlings. Seedlings need 9-12 hours of light every day.
Seeds will germinate in 10-14 days when kept between 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the seedlings are 3 to 4 inches tall, transplant them into larger growing containers.
Transplant into containers (minimum 1 gallon). Make sure there is good root-to-soil contact by gently tamping down and watering in well. When your seedlings are 8-10 inches tall, transplant them permanently into your garden or into large growing containers.

More reading:  Hibiscus: Hardy and Tropical Plants for the Garden By Barbara Perry Lawton